A year ago this month, the air over American liberalism was thick with champagne corks. Barack Obama, the newly elected president, was poised to be inaugurated, and he in turn would inaugurate the long-prophesized new progressive era. A year later, the champagne corks are hardly flying, and if this is to be morning in America for American liberalism, it seems to have come with a pretty nasty hangover.
The notion that the left is owed its turn has been, for some, an immutable law of history.
For instance, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late activist-historian, argued in "The Cycles of American History" that every 30 years or so, America swings like a pendulum between government activism and conservatism, between emphasizing public purpose and private gain. The 1930s and the 1960s saw statism in the saddle; in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, markets were ascendant. Based on his (very simplistic) theory, Schlesinger predicted that the 1990s would be a new progressive decade like the 1960s and 1930s. This was a widespread hope among liberals at the end of the Reagan-Bush era. As Dennis Hopper put it in a deservedly forgotten 1990 movie, "Flashback": "The '90s are going to make the '60s look like the '50s."
They were wrong, as even Schlesinger conceded. Bill Clinton might have had big ambitions when he entered office, but the failure of HillaryCare and the success of the Contract with America put an end to that. Americans didn't want anything like a replay of the 1960s. As a result, Clinton spent most of his tenure clinging to the polls, terrified of straying too far from the political center, and the healthy tension between him and the Republican-controlled Congress led to welfare reform, tough anti-crime measures and a reduction of the deficit.
Some hoped that Al Gore would pick up the ball of idealism after Clinton dropped it. But the Florida recount settled that. In 2004, both Howard Dean, the front-runner, and John Kerry, the ultimate nominee, styled themselves as heirs to the now-overdue rebirth of Kennedy-era activism. They lost.
In 2008, liberals had more reason to hope. Obama ran the most unapologetically idealistic campaign in memory. Surely Americans were ready for some full-tilt-boogie government activism. Indeed, the polls said as much, with large numbers of Americans supporting health care reform and other liberal action items. Obama himself said that he saw himself as a Bizarro-world Reagan (or words to that effect), and he sought to usher in a left-wing version of the Reagan era three decades earlier. It was, he proclaimed, "an inflection point" in history. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter dutifully dusted off and updated Schlesinger's cycles theory a month before the election. You see, since the conservative era didn't begin until the tax revolts of 1978, so -- voilà! -- the liberal era should begin right now with Obama.
"Leftward ho!" Alter proclaimed.
A little more than a year later, we surely have been hoing leftward. But it already seems as if the American people are sick of it. The 2009 off-year elections might not have been a repudiation of Obama, but they were definitely not an embrace of Obamaism. Meanwhile, by nearly 2 to 1, Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Obama's approval ratings have slumped severely. Independent voters have abandoned the Democrats. The only populist fervor out there is fueling the anti-tax, pro-limited-government "Tea Party" movement, which is now more popular than either the GOP or the Democrats. Even last spring, when anti-Wall Street fervor was justifiably high, more Americans viewed "big government" as a bigger threat to the country than "big business."
Obama's signature domestic policy goal, health care reform, is decidedly unpopular with a majority of Americans. And a Rasmussen Reports poll last week found that 70 percent of respondents either support waterboarding the Christmas bomber suspect or are unsure whether we should. Only 30 percent subscribe to Obama's position. And that's after an unsuccessful terrorist attack.
Whatever you make of these facts, it seems fair to say they do not amount to kindling for a prairie fire of progressive activism, even if an improving economy lifts Obama's numbers.
One possibility is that Schlesinger was right, but not in a way he or his liberal peers would like. Perhaps we do move in cycles of reform every generation or so, but reform doesn't need to be synonymous with liberal do-goodery. Welfare reform was reform, too, even if the left hated it. And George W. Bush's "big government conservative" activism might have infuriated the left, but that doesn't mean normal Americans didn't see it as government activism all the same.
Or perhaps there are no laws of history, and Obama was simply wrong about being the chosen deliverer for a new progressive era. Perhaps, for all the liberal celebrating last year, the reality is that Obama fulfilled his mandate the moment he was sworn in as President Not-Bush, and it's hangovers for as far as the eye can see.